Chasing Balls for Charity | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Chasing Balls for Charity

Sean Payton (far right)

Sean Payton (far right) Photo by Melanie Boyd.

He may not be a scratch golfer, but Wednesday at Annandale Golf Club, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton proved to be a stand-up guy.

Payton, now in his eighth year with the Saints, headlined the Trustmark Wealth Management Pro-Am. The tournament also also featured Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze and Southern Miss football great Sammy Winder and aimed to raise money for the Blair E. Batson Children's Hospital.

After finishing up his round with professional golfer Sean O'Hair and three lucky tournament entrants, the San Mateo, Calif., native took a moment to meet with Andrew Cross, a 2-year-old from Brandon who is living with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. ALL, as it's commonly known, is a particularly sinister strand of cancer that usually targets children ages 2 to 5.

Andrew's parents, John and Catherine Cross, brought their son, along with his older brother and sister, to meet Payton just one day before he was scheduled to return to Batson to begin his second round of chemotherapy.

Payton spoke with the parents, got Andrew to say "Who dat!" and signed a helmet for the family.

"The support we've received from people has been amazing," Catherine Cross said. "We have been trying to keep Romans 8:28 in mind: 'And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have called according to his purpose.'

"We've stuck with it, and we have been blessed."

The tournament is a part of the Sanderson Farms Championship, which teed off Thursday morning under uncertain skies.

Although it has donated over $7 million to the charity since its inception, it has not turned a profit the last three years and has not been able to contribute.

This year, however, officials were proud to announce that they were going to be able to donate over $300,000 to the hospital.

"That's one of the things the (PGA) Tour does a good job with," Payton said. "At each stop, there's a lot of money raised, and a lot of effort given to making it better when they leave."

Leaving situations better than he found them is something Payton knows about. Since taking the reins as head coach in New Orleans, Payton has transformed Mississippi's de-facto NFL favorite from a team that had won one playoff game in 40 years to 2009 Super Bowl champs, and more importantly, a year-in-year-out championship contender.

But Payton's past couple of off-seasons have been marred by distractions. In 2011, a player lockout prevented players from communicating with coaches until the stalemate ended July 31, and in 2012, the NFL held Payton liable for a bounty scandal in which his players were offered bonuses for "taking out" players from opposing teams.

Penalties for his role forced Payton to watch the entire 2012 season from the stands. His team floundered to a 7-9 record, their worst since 2007.

"Our off-season (this year) was pretty routine driven," Payton said. "It was the first time with the lockout, and it's been a few years since we had a normal minicamp, rookie camp, orientation and everything that leads up to the break before training camp. So we're looking forward to getting started."

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